Finders of the Lost Ninja

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

So here you are, thinking you’ve seen and collected it all, and between decades of official releases, budget box sets, bootlegs and streaming rips, you’ve nigh-completed the finite genre that is the 80’s ninja film. Then labels like AGFA and Vinegar Syndrome tell you “Oh hell no Keith, YOUR LIFE IS LIE!” and drop all sorts of never-before-seen shinobi-cinema on your lap. I should have learned a lesson when Drafthouse Films resuscitated the long un-seen Miami Connection in 2012. But the latest of these unearthed phantoms is certainly the greatest — New York Ninja!

Shot in 1983-84ish under the sketchiest of conditions — unencumbered by proper permits and loaded with clearly non-union personnel and amateur-at-best actors — the ringer of the production was Taiwanese import John Liu, a first-class high-kicker who had worked with the likes of Yuen Woo-ping on films like The Secret Rivals, and would later produce the likes of Ninja in the Claws of the CIA. Ten reels of 35mm were shot entirely in NYC (a location Canon wouldn’t even touch) with Liu in an off-white ninja suit seeking revenge on a dizzying variety of street thugs for the death of his wife. He becomes a vigilante sensation, with self-branded shuriken calling-cards and street vendors hawking “I HEART NY NINJA” t-shirts, plus throngs of inspired kids trying to stop crime on their own with mail-order weapons. These rather familiar elements are at odds with other, more outré tangents — a white-slavery ring and a radioactive mutant pimp-serial-killer-terrorist villain with a chauffeur who could be Count Dante’s younger brother. It’s so schizophrenic, one is tempted to think this was perhaps multiple films trying to mate into one, or maybe a troubled shoot with a complete shift in talent and crew ending up in a whole new agenda?

No one will ever know because in 1984 the project was abandoned…

Cut to 2019 when cult disc label Vinegar Syndrome gets ahold of the film cans, and sans the shooting script or any sort of story notes, and no audio track, undergoes Herculean efforts to restore and re-assemble a finished film, and boom, here we are with a brand new — yet vintage — psychotronic ninja experience!

Now starring the voices of multi-genre greats like Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Linnea Quigley and Leon Isaac Kennedy, New York Ninja is a schizoid Frankenstein that at any given moment resembles Revenge of the Ninja and Pray for Death, but then turns on a dime to Street Trash and Repo Man territory, plus a smattering of goofy comedy and kiddie stuff, the most demented zero-budget post-apocalypse-like gang members since the Catman flicks, and one of the least-comfortable sex scenes (I guess?) ever.

The new score by Voyag3r is a superb retro synth romp, and to be honest it’s almost too good. Had the original been finished, I expect we’d have had more of a hodgepodge of suites stolen from other movies, and that special sort of ill-fitting and over-the-top low-tech keyboard mayhem the Godfrey Ho/IFD flicks have become legendary for.

Despite his rather remarkable high-kick game, John Liu has no business in a ninja suit (multiple wardrobe malfunctions just worked into fight scenes only make it better), and definitely should not be handling Japanese swords. But you’re not here for Kosugi-quality martial arts or espionage drama alá Shinobi no Mono… you’re here for the amazingness of the amateur-ness, the guerrilla quality akin to the Italian Bronx Warriors and cannibal/zombie films, and the concussion you’ll give yourself from all the head-slapping bafflement that one film can contain.


Other head scratchers and highlights:

• We’re given ZERO background on our hero, how he’s a ninja, why he’s in New York, nada… I have to think flashbacks were intended to be shot and never were.

• Cast members, during a guerrilla shoot on 42nd St. pass by a bombastic theater marquee for Ninja III: The Domination! There’s a ton more NYC time capsule goodness to behold here all around…

• Have a ball keeping track of the changing hair and wigs of the female lead from scene to scene, shot to shot.


But this release is way more than just the movie. The story of its recovery from not just obscurity, but from the very ether — genuine cinematic purgatory — serves as inspiration to any student of popular media, and Vinegar Syndrome has shown this movie more love than most any other release in the ninja genre, be it Canon or Criterion.

The library-like edition currently on-sale folds out at the pull of a ribbon to reveal all sorts of newly commissioned artwork, the disc case itself is superb and the book included is a must-read extra. The book and a corresponding documentary extra chronicle the film’s rediscovery, detail the effort that went into this release and is a superb portrait of what a labor of love can mean to the contributors. Thank you Kurtis Spieler and everyone else involved for every hour of your lives spent fretting over this thing in the past few years!

Something else profoundly unique is represented in this release of New York Ninja. Any and every other ninja movie distributed during the 80s boom (particularly ones pushed out as the craze declined towards the latter end of the decade) suffered somewhat in posterity. These films were originally dumped on the grindhouse and werewolf distribution circuits, then given the cheapest of VHS releases, particularly in the ‘priced-to-own’ era. Little care was given to these transfers — they were the worst of pan-and-scan and often had their credit sequences corrupted by bad re-titling. Even the best and holiest of the genre was snubbed by the DVD boom of the late 90s into the 2000s, and it was well into the 2010’s that any of them got prestige releases. Perfectly good, and even great, ninja films wound up in the orphanages that were the public domain Mill Creek box sets. Those prints, often digitizations of ungodly bad VHS rips, are what too often live to this day on streaming platforms like Pluto and Tubi.

New York Ninja, the Rumplestilskin of the genre, suffered none of the above. It’ll never be known by three or four different inappropriate titles. It was never seen in cropped form on late-night cable being chided by Joe-Bob or Elvira, never butchered for ratings for Commander USA’s Groovie Movies then later berated by some riff-tracker comedian or pigeon-holed into some “so-bad-it’s-good” listicle compilation on YouTube. Instead, we’re getting it in a weird sort of virgin form — free of judgement, validated by the deluxe edition now on shelves, and able to be enjoyed without the corruptions age and economics impose on a lot of other more worthy films many consider trash. We’re also spared anyone trying to big league the fan community by gatekeeping some obscure print of it for bragging rights. This film is NEW to ALL of us. It’s a rare opportunity, and I’d say one that may never come again, but dang, these lost and unknown flicks just sort of keep coming…

New York Ninja joins two other rarer-than-rarities: AGFA+Bleeding Skull‘s pulled-out-of-the-ether Ninja Zombie — a totally indie martial arts/voodoo oddity that aspired to Toxic Avenger heights [I have not gotten my hands on this yet] — and Treasure of the Ninja — a collection of genuine DIY Super-8mm films by indie martial-auteur William Lee. You’re not going to get anything ripped from the pages of the Bujinkan Gazette here, but you can play a liver-devastating drinking game by taking a shot every time you recognize a dirt-mall throwing star ‘pendant’, Asian World of Martial Arts budget ninja suit, Dolan Sports ninja bokken or Entertech squirt gun standing in for an UZI.

These labors of self-driven creatives are the polar opposite of the type of soulless, jaded and ambivalent exploitation movies ‘real’ studios made to cash in on the craze. People spent their rent money on film stock, cashed-in favors with friends and co-workers to flush out casts, and risked arrest if caught filming in public spaces to make these movies, dammit!!! Such ‘home movies’ have defied the ravages of time and strictly-regional awareness and now, in lovingly curated releases, stand as a testament to how the ninja craze hit even the zero budget strata of the film world.

I’m proud to rack these discs on the same shelf as Criterion’s Samurai Spy and my Japanese import of Castle of Owls, and highly recommend you all reward the labels for saving these films.

And don’t forget the aforementioned Miami Connection, which can be found on various streaming outlets. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cringe, you’ll have some really bad 80s hair/synth-metal stuck in your head. And it makes a superb double bill with New York Ninja.

Keith J. Rainville — November 2021